A return to Dublin and Trinity College, on the waves of memory


The interior courtyard of Trinity College in Dublin. (PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
October 3, 2013

The last time I passed through the gates of Trinity College, Dublin, I was 20, a student studying the classics and Irish poetry — William Butler Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh. I was living in a boardinghouse in Rathgar, where the owner, Mrs. O’Doherty, not only cleaned my room but also secretly saved my trash, hoping to cash in should I become famous (as she later confessed to my mother).

Details: Dublin

I spent the year trying to be true (with only modest success) to my girlfriend back home, and, determined to be a poet, staying up nights penning quatrains and scanning lines of iambic pentameter. Each morning I was awakened by the sound of hooves striking the cobblestones (if I hurried to the window, I could see sparks fly off the horses’ shoes) as the milk was delivered.

In an old photograph, I have mutton chops, a dreamy faraway look, and am wearing a corduroy jacket and vest, posing before a window in Building No. 40, where we read our Horace, Catullus and Ovid. The year was 1970.

Now, as I pass through the gates of Trinity, I am a 62-year old man with a trick knee and a head full of questions about where the years went. I arrive with my wife of 30 years, Peggy, and my 22-year-old son, Matt. We are staying in the dorms just inside the gates, in a fourth-floor walk-up that leaves me winded and looks out over the campus’s main quad, Parliament Square.

For them, it’s the next-to-last stop on a whirlwind tour of the Emerald Isle. For me, it’s something more. It’s a search for artifacts to prove that I was here, that the memories weren’t implanted but experienced. It’s not an easy task.

Foxes and pubs

The gypsies who begged for coppers — Ireland’s old copper pennies — outside the gate are gone, as are the coppers. (I was here that most confusing Monday, Feb. 15, 1971, when the currency was decimalized and the pound became 100 pence. I continued to feed my shillings, or “bobs” as we called them, into the room heater, hoping to fall asleep before another shilling was required.) The ferries in the port of Dún Laoghaire no longer carry needy classmates to England to shell peas over breaks. Many of the Dublin dives that served curry or chips have been replaced by chic cafes offering nouvelle cuisine and other continental fare. But the Celtic Tiger that roared in my absence has been largely silenced, returning the country to something more modest and recognizable.

Trinity’s new structures, brutish and cold, squat in the midst of Georgian stateliness, reminding me that the future has its costs. Something else is new: A family of foxes has made its home in Trinity and, from twilight on, the foxes have the run of the place.

Bless Ireland, it still exempts artists’ income (the first 40,000 euros, or roughly $54,000) from taxes. The store across from Trinity’s gate still sells Peterson’s pipes, the ones with the sterling silver sleeve. Some of my old pubs — the ancient ones that reeked of smoke and whiskey and poured a proper pint — continue on.

The first night, I take my wife and son to Mulligans on Poolbeg Street, where the pint is still part of the sacraments, though some upstart boutique brews have usurped the place of a Guinness tap or two. John F. Kennedy’s picture still hangs on the wall near the loo, as does a tribute to a local journalist as distinguished for his drinking as for his prose.

The Sinnotts pub I remember was seedy but real, and on Thursday nights, Dublin’s best poets gathered there to read their works-in-progress. Today, reborn and resplendent, it touts itself as a sports bar boasting seven screens. Thank God that McDaids on Harry Street is still there, though the upstairs bar is shuttered most nights for lack of patrons.

It was in that upstairs one night that I engaged an Irish journalist in a drinking contest — or perhaps it was he who challenged me. He was an old man (50?) and a seasoned drinker, convinced that a Yankee posed no threat. So cocky was he that he wagered he could drink two shots of Irish whiskey for every one I downed. There was no money involved, only pride. He stumbled at 16 shots, and I went on to win, triumphantly exiting the pub, seemingly immune to nine shots of Jameson’s.

What I remember next is waking up under the rosebushes of St. Stephen’s Green, my fine dress coat rolled up as a pillow under my head.

Homage to books

Trinity’s Old Library and Long Room are still there, but now, instead of being a solitary admirer lingering over the Book of Kells in its simple wooden case, I find myself in an hour-long queue, part of an operatic production staged for tourists from around the globe who have paid for a glimpse of a single page of text and art.

I wonder at a line so long. It has the feeling of a pilgrimage, and in this era of e-books, it may be just that, paying our respects not merely to one book but to all. The tourists’ reverence does not gladden me. As a classics major, I identify with the monks of old and am tempted to gather up all books and shield them from the cyber-heathens who now threaten them. (There is now an iPad app for the Book of Kells. Blasphemy.)

I remember going on a quest for a first edition of Paddy Kavanagh’s collected poetry. It was 1970, and though he had died but three years earlier, the volume was already scarce. Every bookstore in Dublin was out of it. I walked for hours. Finally, I found Dublin’s last copy in a display case at the Abbey Theatre and bought it for the cover price — about $5. Now I see a copy on the shelf in Ulysses, an antiquarian bookstore on Duke Street. The price: 430 euros — about $580. (I wouldn’t part with mine for twice that.)

Back in 1970, on Ireland’s West Coast, I wandered into a tiny bookstore and found a first edition of Yeats’s 1899 “The Wind Among the Reeds” with a bookplate that read, “From The Library of A. E. Housman,” the renowned Cambridge classicist and poet. But the $40 they wanted for the volume would have busted my budget. Not buying it remains one of life’s nettlesome regrets.

Time passing

The one person from my days at Trinity whom I had hoped to see was Brendan Kennelly, my mentor and instigator-in-chief. He was a randy Kerry man, the very embodiment of mischief, who had been miscast as a dean and who also just happened to be one of the country’s finest and most beloved poets.

I’d followed the wondrous arc of his career over the decades. But in seeking him out, I learned that he had retired from Trinity eight years earlier, and if I was to find him, it would be at a cafe called Lemon’s on Dawson Street where he daily sipped an espresso and watched the passersby. I also learned he’d had bypass surgery and had given up drink a quarter-century earlier.

Each of the three days we were in Dublin I passed by the cafe, looking for him. I even left a note. Nothing. Then on the afternoon of the last day, there he was in all his glory — at 77, still possessing those cherubic cheeks and lusty laugh.

I joined him, and instantly it was as if no time had passed. I reminded him of stories and misadventures shared — and for a few brief moments, the sap again rose in our veins and whatever collective sorrows or missteps we had endured melted away. Peggy took our picture as we rocked with laughter. Then it was time to say goodbye, the sort that I have grudgingly come to accept as final.

Eve Patten, head of Trinity’s School of English, tells me that I can go online and find the poetry I published in the literary magazine Icarus, but I have no stomach for that. Besides, searching it out in cyberspace might somehow disturb the space-time continuum, sending the universe into spasms.

The poet in me died long ago. In his place, a journalist and teacher took up residence, bringing his own joys and illusions of significance. My visit to Trinity reminds me of the welter of contradictions my life has become. Increasingly, it seems that text and subtext are one, that “the meaning of life” is best left to the 21-year-olds with time enough to puzzle it out.

The last night at Trinity, after Peggy and Matt and I have played an hour of hearts, I take to wandering the campus. I revisit Building No. 40 (now being readied to house the law classes), the green field where I listened to a girl named Sarah from Belfast (the field is now a muddy track being prepped for something grand) and the library where centuries of memories are stored — not in some ethereal cloud but here on Earth.

And this last night, again I see a fox in Parliament Square. I’d like to think that he has come to see me off. He trots about the yard, invisible but for his tail, a spirit from some time long ago, always welcome to return.

Gup is a professor of journalism at Emerson College and the author of several books, most recently “A Secret Gift.”

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